Officials: Lawndale fire that left 1 dead, 3 critical was arson

A woman died and three other people were badly burned, including two children 3 and 9, when someone started a fire in a home in the Lawndale neighborhood, possibly pouring accelerant on some of the victims, officials said.

The woman suffered burns over 80 percent of her body and was first taken to Mount Sinai Hospital and then to John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, where she died, officials said. She was identified by the Cook County medical examiner’s office as Taniya Johnson, 33, of the 4500 block of West Harrison Street, and was pronounced dead at 7:40 a.m. at Stroger.

A girl, whose grandmother said was 3 although officials initially had listed her age as 5, was taken to Stroger hospital with burns over her entire body, officials said. A 9-year-old boy was also brought there, suffering from burns to 35 percent of his body, fire officials said. They were both listed in critical condition. Johnson was the mother of the two children, officials said.

A 30-year-old man suffered burns to 90 percent of his body and was listed in critical condition at Mount Sinai before also being taken to Stroger. Two women, 60 and 84, were taken in fair-to-serious condition to Saint Anthony Hospital.

“My grandkids are really fighting for their life,” said Shelia Johnson, 50, whose daughter died in the fire. “But what went wrong? I really don’t know at all. It’s just sad. It’s just very sad.”

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said that while the investigation was ongoing, the fire appeared to be an arson and the death a homicide.

“We believe that it’s going to be an arson, which means it’s definitely going to be a homicide,” McCarthy said at an unrelated event on the West Side this afternoon. “That’s what I can tell you right now.”

He said it appeared to be a domestic situation, and that the arsonist had a relationship with someone in the home.

“We believe we know who the offender is, we believe we know what happened,” McCarthy said, but again cautioned that the information was preliminary as the investigation continued.

At Stroger hospital, distraught family members gathered, pacing in the front lobby, weeping out loud, crying alone in corners and sometimes holding each other for comfort.

Throughout the morning, people streamed into the emergency room, disappeared into the private rooms, then came outside weeping. Most declined to talk about the incident. And as Johnson pulled herself together to remember her daughter and discuss her grandchildren, her family members pulled her away. She struggled to keep her eyes open as she spoke and kept her head tucked down in her chest.

Firefighters didn’t see any flames when they arrived at the home in the 4200 block of West 21st Place around 4:30 a.m., but they found one victim on the front lawn, according to Fire District Chief Peter Van Dorpe.

The fire had blown out a window on the first floor, and the air rushing in had spread the fire through the first floor, he said.

Authorities said the fire was being investigated as an arson, and that it appears someone poured an accelerant around the apartment and possibly on the children. Relatives have told investigators that someone in the house had mental issues and had threatened to burn down the house, according to authorities, citing preliminary information.

Authorities said an empty gas can was found behind the home, but tests are still being done to determine what type of accelerant was used.

Neighbors gathered at the home this morning. The front room, seen through a broken window, was completely blackened. Upstairs windows were broken out.More than a dozen firefighters, headlamps and chest lights lit, streamed out of the brown brick two-flat. More firefighters walked to the front from the west side of the house, where a large ladder leaned against the building.

pnickeas@tribune.com
Twitter: @peternickeas

jgorner@tribune.com

lbowean@tribune.com

Copyright © 2012 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

6 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 455 other followers